It is dismaying that animal cruelty in its worst form continues to regularly take place in Northern Ireland. There have been appalling stories of animals being starved, attacked and used to fight one another.
Such situations inflict horrific levels of animal suffering and it is essential that those responsible pay for their crimes in court, but sadly this is not yet the case.
During Question Time in the Assembly on Wednesday I challenged the minister with policy responsibility for animal welfare, Michelle McIllveen, to encourage the judiciary to more regularly apply the maximum sentences available in order to send a tough message that animal cruelty will simply not be tolerated. Whilst she did agree to meet with the Minister for Justice following my concerns, she still mistakenly thought the problem lay with inadequate legislation rather than the implementation of the laws we already have.
Whilst we have the toughest penalties for animal cruelty of anywhere in the UK or Ireland, including a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, it is a matter of huge regret that they are still not being forcefully applied. This has caused sickening scenes of offenders walking free from court and jeering.
Whilst I respect the principle of the Separation of Powers, there have been several cases in recent times which have been labelled as horrific but for which only lenient sentences have been handed down. If offenders in these cases are simply being let off with a slap on the wrist, our sentencing system will never act as a proper deterrent.
Next week I am meeting with the Director of Public Prosecutions to discuss with him how he is going to use his new powers to refer an unduly lenient sentence to the Court of Appeal and enquire where animal welfare lies within his list of priorities.
Mike Nesbitt MLA
Ulster Unionist leader